Bulgarian immigrant Kate Belcheva went from part-time cleaning work to setting up a successful ethical cleaning company of her own, turning down business offers as she kept to her principles in order to make clean business green business
Good Business is a column hosted by Anna Levy from HUB Islington, an incubation space for socially driven entrepreneurs. Each month she catches up with the people leading change.
Anna: Hi Kate. Tell me about your business in a nutshell.
Kate: I run an ethical cleaning company called Ultimately Eco, which I launched in 2007. We only use environmentally friendly products and educate our staff in the importance of green practices. We also pay them all a fair London Living Wage.
How did it start?
As with many recent immigrants, I started part-time cleaning work as an easy entry into the job market. Coming from outside the EU (Bulgaria), the only way to get work legally was to be self-employed, so I took cleaning contracts alongside other casual work. What I really wanted to do though was to start a business of my own – one based on my personal principles and values, rather than somebody else’s.
Somebody suggested I start my own cleaning business and I really wasn’t keen at first. But I soon realised that there was potential here to do something good for the world and still make a living. I went from being a reluctant entrepreneur to a social entrepreneur!
What was the potential you saw in cleaning?
Cleaning is a large industry sector – at the time the UK cleaning industry was worth around £11bn – and I realised it could be a way to educate people about green issues.
My first focus was on the environmental and health impacts of cleaning. There are 30,000 manmade chemicals in the EU, many used in cleaning products, and only a small number have been properly safety-tested. You don’t need to be an expert to know how toxic some of these chemicals are – spray oven cleaner onto your cooker and you’re choking!
At the same time, I realised there was a problem in the way cleaners saw themselves and their work, and recognised the need for a shift in attitude. Cleaning is considered a low-skilled profession and of low importance, which really affects the motivation of those working in the industry.
Did you find it hard establishing yourself in the market?
There’s a lot of green-wash in the cleaning industry (so to speak!). Everyone is saying they’re green and ethical, but you can tell from their websites that they don’t really get it. We’ve worked with the CHEM Trust, using their research on harmful manmade chemicals to inform our strategy and communications, and we worked with sustainability consultancy Future Conversations to go carbon neutral – which we achieved in the last year!
How do you balance staying true to your values while making the business commercially viable? What kind of difficult decisions have you had to make along the way?
We had offers from several business partners, but declined, because they weren’t operating under the same values. Through these partnerships, we could have grown faster and had more influence, but it would have been at the cost of our principles.
It’s becoming harder to remain competitive as the market is swamped with ‘green’ cleaners charging lower rates. We haven’t cut our prices because of our determination to maintain a fair wage for our staff, and this has meant us losing business on occasion. What people don’t realise is that if you are getting a cheap deal, someone is almost certainly getting exploited.
Proudest moment so far?
Winning one of 25 placements on a business training programme run by the Goldman Sachs Foundation. This affirmed my business knowledge and taught me how we can grow, as well as introducing me to a new network of successful entrepreneurs. Getting onto the programme has really validated the choices I’ve made and it’s great that a company like Goldman Sachs is acknowledging the trend for socially and environmentally responsible business.